Water fight: New law centralizing control of Ecuador’s water resources pits indigenous groups against each other

Aug 1, 2014

By Andrew Diaz

In 2008 Ecuador officially recognized the human right to water, joining only nine other countries that have done the same since 1994. Section One, Article 12 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states, “The human right to water is essential and cannot be waived. Water constitutes a national strategic asset for use by the public and it is unalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life.”

It is therefore surprising, if not ironic, that over the past several years, interest groups have been colliding over water rights in the Andean country.

So, who is fighting over water in a country that guarantees it as a human right and also happens to be located at the Some 6,000 indigenous people take part in a protest against a polemic government bill on water resourceedge of the largest river basin in the world, anyway? As Julia Apland Hitz succinctly stated in a recent piece published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, “The sides of the conflict can be summarized as the government and big business vs. the indigenous communities, but of course it’s more complicated than that.”

Indeed it is. Around the time of Ecuador’s constitutional referendum, the world experienced a convergence of global crises: in energy, food and finance. These concurring events, coupled with the ongoing threat of global climate change, have caused land grabbing, in which wealthy corporations, powerful national governments and private equity funds have sought available lands abroad for food, fuel and mineral production to prepare themselves for future price increases.

China is perhaps the leading global actor implementing this strategy, and it has its sights on Latin America as a place to invest billions of dollars to finance extractive industries, including oil refineries. Ecuador, a member of OPEC, is expected to receive up to nine billion dollars from Beijing for one new oil refinery alone, amounting to the single largest infrastructure project in President Rafael Correa’s administration.

But how do such energy- and water-intensive projects get off the ground? After a years-long struggle punctuated by fierce debate and protests by groups on both sides of the issue, the National Assembly of Ecuador finally passed a new water law in late June. One of the main changes brought by this new law will bring the nation’s water system, previously under community control, under the subordination of a centralized authority. The new law also allows for groundwater to be included in the sale of land, thus giving the owner, including oil and mining companies, complete control over the resource.

As the law was being passed, indigenous social rights groups began a twelve-day march, or caminata, across the country that culminated in a demonstration just two blocks away from the National Assembly in Quito. They chanted and waived multi-colored banners as they marched in solidarity. Their chants in protest included, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” meaning, “The united people shall never be defeated!” During the forming of the new water bill, indigenous leaders demanded legal protections for those communities living near water resources. They argued that these indigenous communities played a vital role in the construction of water networks and irrigation canals, and warned that this new law could pave the way to water privatization.

Other indigenous groups, however, say they support the new law and centralized control of water. More than 3,000 from a variety of indigenous communities gathered in Quito three weeks ago to support Correa, delivering what they claimed to be tens of thousands of signatures supporting the centralization. The group was much larger than the one protesting the new law.

President Correa has been defensive on the issue, claiming that the protesters are merely political opponents and asserted that the new law will not lead to privatization, adding, “It is a rude lie to say that the water is going to be privatized.” He adds that privatization of the country’s water is prohibited by the Constitution and the new law.

Just two weeks after celebrating the passing of Ecuador’s new water law, President Correa met with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss future development plans and to promote bilateral relations. At the meeting, held in Brazil, Correa acknowledged China’s support in its economic development including oil refineries, and funding of proposals and basic industries.

Having had their water supply contaminated due to oil extraction in the past, many of Ecuador’s indigenous people fear that the passing of this law, which effectively ends community control of their water, represents a slippery slope toward privatization. Jorge Herrera, president of Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, summarizes his side’s position by saying, “Our concern is that control of water stays with the community. We consider it an ancestral right, not one of the central government.”

Credit: Food and Water Watch, www.foodandwaterwatch.org; Photo caption: Indigenous group protesting water use changes.

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